“That one was taken on my birthday… that’s me and my friend by Ramses Square garden, it was our favourite place back then… we’d hang out before our weekly outing to the movies. This photograph was taken when Khali Balak Men Zou Zou (Take Care of Zou Zou) was playing at the cinema. We used to wear short skirts and sleeveless shirts, and no one would look at us, everything has changed now …”
At the premises of El-Nahda Culture and Scientific Renaissance Association, a unique photographic exhibition is on display. The “Photo Tales” exhibition has a selection of personal old photographs side-by-side with recent ones, scattered along the walls, intertwined with a collage of audio-recorded memories that plays throughout the exhibition.
“Photo Tales” is just one of the many art projects of “Al- Faggala sings and tell her stories”, a cultural programme created by El-Nahda NGO, in order to establish a trusted connection between the indigenous community of El Faggala neighbourhood and professionals working in the artistic and cultural arena. El-Faggala tahki wa Toghani (El-Faggala sings and tells her stories) is phase two of the project El-Faggala Menawara Be Ahlaha (El-Faggala honoured by its people), which started last year, with the aim of documenting and reviving the memories of the neighbourhood, but with an artistic twist.
El-Faggala is one of the city’s oldest districts, tucked behind Ramses Street, in the heart of Cairo. The neighbourhood, which was once one of the main book markets in Cairo, and even hosted a cinema studio, is now the hub for ceramics and bathroom utilities.
“I didn’t want it to be only photographs,” explained Marwa Seoudi, photographer and workshop facilitator. “I wanted to have the human element in the process, as well as good shots”, adding that her idea of a photographic exhibition is one that aims to involve and connect with the neighbourhood. Seoudi’s experience in social work enabled her to communicate her idea to the people she chose to tell their stories. Out of twelve people, she narrowed it down to five subjects, each representing a different socio-economic section, yet all living within the area of El-Faggala district.
The photographs on display reflect several eras from Egyptian history through the black and white shots. From the early fifties to the present day, people’s random photographs have huge social connotations. In the past a typical middle-class wedding was held in the street on the corner, instead of in today’s expensive rented halls. Women were dressed in sleeveless shirts and short skirts while roaming the streets without any harassment, in contrast to the increasing amount of veiled women today who get harassed on daily basis. There was the typical middle-class weekly outing to the movies and the garden in Ramses Square was actually an outing for some of the El-Faggala residents.
“I wanted to show different characters and have a diverse picture of the whole community,” explained Seoudi. “Tante Suzy represents the upper-middle-class, while Amal (now known as Abdalla’s mother) grew up in a heavily-populated area,” she continued, explaining how Am Raheb’s (the owner of a grocery store) face was very difficult to escape from, and Am Asem (a dedicated cinema fan who works in a factory) wanted to videotape the event.
Creating a collage of memories with the audio-recordings was the solution. “I wanted it to be more interactive, I wanted people (the audience) to listen and guess,” she comments.
The audio-recording makes the memories behind the photographs very vivid. One tenant reveals his close relationship with his elderly landlady, who treated him as a son and how she used to leave the shutter slightly open, for him to check on her every day. The exhibit shows how Cairo was open to many nationalities, such as Armenians, Greeks and Italians, and how they lived in harmony while sharing their lives and dreams with their fellow Egyptians, who lived in the same middle-class district.
However the contrast between the old and recent photos of those Faggala tenants, along with their memories, reveals just how society has become more closed and conservative through the years.
“People agree that the good old days were much better. But the deeper we went then they would remember the negative aspects of the past. However, they were all nostalgic,” she observes adding that the one thing they all agreed upon is that they felt that “this (the memories) is a treasure that came out of their district”.
‘Photo Tales’ exhibition runs till 3 January 2011 at the premises of El-Nahda NGO (Jesuit), El-Faggala